Commentary on Psalm 37:1-9
From its opening lines, Psalm 37 closely resembles the didactic tone of the book of Proverbs.
For example, Proverbs 23:17 counsels, “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always continue in the fear of the LORD.” Similarly, Psalm 37 begins by declaring, “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,” continuing “for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb” (verses 1-2).
The psalmist then encourages that listeners “Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security” (verse 3) and to “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (verse 4). Verse 4, perhaps unsurprisingly, is sometimes invoked by proponents of the prosperity gospel. As Costi Hinn, a nephew of the famous prosperity teacher Benny Hinn, writes:
By an early age, as part of the Hinn family, I viewed Jesus Christ as our magic jenie—rub him right, and he’ll give you whatever your heart desires. I quoted verses from the Bible like Psalm 37:4, which says, “Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart,” and John 14:14, where Jesus says, “If you ask Me anything in My Name, I will do it.” The meaning of these Scriptures was so obvious to me; believe in Jesus Christ, ask for things by saying, “In Jesus’ name” and you’ll have whatever you want. Seriously—that simple. Not difficult to understand.1
But, as Hinn outlines in his story of how he abandoned the prosperity gospel, life is rarely as simple as saying certain words in order to receive material gain. Read alone, Psalm 37:4 might suggest as much, but a careful reading of the entire psalm illustrates that it addresses an age-old question: Why do good things happen to people who act badly—and what should we do when we witness this play out?
Though not part of the lectionary reading, Psalm 37:25-26 suggests that its author’s answer to this question is that God will ensure that nothing good shall come to the wicked and to wrongdoers, but that those who trust in God will find that good things do come to them eventually: “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” If the God’s people hold on, the psalmist insists again and again, good things will happen to them. Here we might be tempted to see how the psalm could be used by proponents of the prosperity gospel; after all, as Ellen F. Davis writes, this psalm can be “taken to be the worst kind of ‘wisdom literature’: a somewhat random collection of truisms that may not be so true after all.”2 Just wait, be good, and good things will happen. For this reason, Walter Brueggemann argues that Psalm 37 “reflects a community for whom most things work out.”3 Of course, life is rarely so simple.
Yet as Davis notes, there is another way to understand Psalm 37. A theme of inheriting the land in the future runs throughout the psalm: “you will live in the land, and enjoy security” (verse 3); “those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land” (verse 9); “the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity” (verse 11); “for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off” (verse 22); “the righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever” (verse 29); “wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked” (verse 34).
When Davis reads Psalm 37, she understands it as a poem that “speaks to and for the ‘vulnerable,’ who, it seems, are currently landless,” and as a text that “looks toward changes in matters of land tenure.” While the wicked might “prosper in their way” and “carry out evil devices” (verse 7) or “draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy” (verse 14), readers of the psalm do not need to understand this as “contentment with the status quo.” Instead, “far from being sanguine, the poem acknowledges that there is reason for apprehension and even mourning.”4 Though the audience of this psalm might have lived in an “extractive” economy—which Davis sees in verse 21, where “the wicked borrow, and do not pay back”— the psalm also records how “the righteous are generous and keep giving” (verse 21). Communities that are generous and keep giving, Davis writes, are “communities that endure … they cultivate modest habits of use and accumulation.”5
If read piecemeal, as Hinn notes above—“Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (verse 4)—Psalm 37 provides aphorisms that most of us know are not always true. But if we read the psalm in its entirety, we might find it more satisfying.
This is especially the case as we read Psalm 37 in the weeks following increased recognition of our contemporary land crisis, in the days after climate activist Greta Thunberg’s speech to the United Nations, in the wake of recent reports that climate change is happening faster and with more ferocity than we thought it was even a year ago, and with scientific evidence suggesting that much of the damage done is irreversible. Reading this way, might we turn to Psalm 37 and find in it what Davis sees—a “tone of … encouragement for the dispirited”?6
After all, this psalm encourages patience and trust in God, but also reminds readers that God “will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday” (verse 6), that “the righteous are generous and keep giving” (verse 21), and “are ever giving liberally and lending” (verse 26). All of this requires action on the part of the psalm’s audience: to have a cause, to give, to lend to others. Rather than simply shrugging our shoulders or giving up in the face of what seems like a battle we have already lost, we can—with the psalmist—focus on “do[ing] good” (verse 3) with an eye toward the future. With Davis, we might use Psalm 37 as a text that encourages us to become a community that “cultivate[s] modest habits of use and accumulation.”7 And in this way, we can endeavor to create a world where future generations might “live in the land, and enjoy security.”
Costin W. Hinn, God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 38.
Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 115.
Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith. Edited by Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 239. Cited in Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, 115.